It’s in times of crisis that leaders show their true colors.
Those in the fitness industry have stepped up in light of the coronavirus pandemic, coming together to fight for their employees, members and the health of their communities.
Simultaneously, these leaders are not only facing financial and operational challenges, but are also striving to overcome misconceptions about the industry’s professionalism, cleanliness and ability to keep customers safe.
This has led to a rallying cry in the industry revolving around the essential aspects of fitness businesses, the importance of taking back control of the narrative surrounding the industry at large, and why fitness leaders must get involved at the local, state and national levels.
The Essential Aspects of Fitness
As the pandemic unfolded, so did a debate surrounding the question of whether or not gyms should be considered essential businesses and included in Phase 1 of reopening plans nationwide.
Although the answer to this question is nuanced and dependent on one’s perspective, as a whole, many fitness leaders feel what the industry provides is certainly crucial.
“I think fitness is essential,” said Francesca Schuler, the CEO of In-Shape Health Clubs in California. “It’s essential for physical and mental well-being, and for an ability to fight off diseases. Sadly, so many of the communities that have been impacted [by COVID-19] are people who have chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity. From its role in the world, fitness is essential.”
Schuler added the essential aspects of fitness are where operators should focus when making the argument to reopen. “It’s become about the clubs, and I think people have lost the message of ‘fitness is essential,’” she said. “So whether we’re allowed to reopen in Phase 1, 2 or 3, let’s all remember we’re in the preventative healthcare industry. That’s what we do.”
In fact, the grouping of health clubs into the category of “leisure” businesses, such as restaurants and movie theaters, was a source of frustration for many operators nationwide throughout the pandemic. Larry Conner, the president and general manager of Stone Creek Club & Spa, experienced this firsthand in the state of Louisiana.
“In my state, we are tagged into leisure and entertainment, including restaurants, and that’s not really what we’re about,” said Conner. “We want to be treated as healthcare, which is really the essential part. Leisure is never going to get you an essential tag. We’ve got to get more serious about the health part of our businesses.”
Bill McBride, the co-founder, president and CEO of Active Wellness, said he understands why clubs were considered non-essential in the early stages of the pandemic, when slowing the spread of COVID-19 was the top priority. However, he feels clubs should have been included in Phase 1 reopening plans due to their positive impact on the healthcare ecosystem as a whole.
“We provide physical, mental, social experiences, support, guidance, motivation, energy and fun,” said McBride. “The mental and social attributes of our product and service are often unrealized or undervalued by the general public. We not only serve physical fitness, medical conditions and rehabilitative needs, but help with social isolation, depression, anxiety, chemical dependency and a whole host of other non-fitness related conditions. But that is really the secret sauce of our industry — people, programs, human connection — all for the service and well-being of others. Humans are social creatures, and the mind and body need the variety and energy provided by our quality sites and by our industry.”
Controlling the Narrative
Although many operators understand the essential aspects of the gym business to the health of their communities, from an outsider’s perspective, these benefits aren’t always as clear.
“The real challenge isn’t whether or not we’re essential, it’s whether the consumers have confidence in what we deliver in order to keep coming back or return post-shutdown to the club,” said Jon Brady, the president of Midtown Athletic Clubs, which has eight clubs in the U.S. and Canada. “In some respects it doesn’t really matter what the governor or the state says, although we have to follow the law. What really matters is the perception of the members or the position of the public — whether they have confidence that we can deliver a safe, sanitized environment for them to exercise and do their activity, which builds their immune systems.”
So, what can gyms do to reclaim the narrative? According to Brady, the first step involves overcoming stereotypes about health clubs hailing from a different era.
“We’ve been stereotyped since the 80s in terms of what we do, and in lots of ways, as an industry, we haven’t helped ourselves,” said Brady. “We continue to put advertising out with fit, young people who are tan, healthy and athletic — when the majority of the population looks nothing like that, and the majority of the population just needs to move, be active and healthy. That is part of our mission as an industry, but I think we’ve been negatively affected by our own advertising and PR for a long time.”
Scott Gillespie, the owner of Saco Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine, echoed these sentiments, explaining that from the get-go of the pandemic, it was clear policymakers in particular had misunderstandings surrounding how gyms operate.
“I’m disappointed that it appears there’s a lack of understanding about what a health club really is by many policymakers,” said Gillespie. “I think the myths of clubs being cans of sardines packed with people, much like a bar might be, is misleading. In our marketing we show lots of people together exercising, which was engaging pre-COVID, and to some degree, I think that’s coming back to haunt us.”
In fact, Gillespie explained gyms are oftentimes the exact opposite of the misconceptions held by the media or policymakers.
“Many clubs are really spacious,” said Gillespie. “They have room for people to exercise, so that’s half of it. The second challenge is there’s a perception that fitness people are not professional, that they’re just gym rats and may not have the expertise or ability to create cleaning, sanitizing and social distancing protocols, and understand and enforce them. And again, that’s totally false.”
Due to these misconceptions, Gillespie and other fitness leaders believe the industry needs to be intentional surrounding its marketing messages and communication strategies moving forward. It needs to convey professionalism, and emphasize the healthcare and essential aspects of the business.
“Our marketing messages historically have been about helping members achieve healthy goals, and to me this [pandemic] shifts the storyline,” added Gillespie. “We knew all along that to bring our members back comfortably we needed to change and we needed to communicate those changes effectively to our members. What I don’t think we’ve done as well as we need to do going forward is communicate what we’ve done to policymakers, so we can prove to them and gain credibility that we can get people healthier while keeping them safe.”
As a result of these challenges, many operators are stressing the importance of industry standards, and possibly even the creation of endorsements and certifications surrounding a club’s cleanliness. It would be similar to the restaurant industry’s health inspection grading system, or LEED certifications that indicate an organization’s commitment to the use of green materials.
“I’d like to see a renewed focus on working together to share best practices and set standards,” said Schuler. “Having an endorsement, whether it’s from a fitness alliance or IHRSA, for example, I think is going to be a part of our future. That happens in almost every other industry. I’d love us to say, ‘OK, we’ve gone through, we’ve been vetted to be a part of this group, and we agreed to and are committed to adhering to these standards.’”
According to Vicki Brick, the CEO of Brick Bodies in Maryland, it may be beneficial for standards or endorsements to come from the medical community or government authorities as well.
“As an owner or operator, think of the ways you can get endorsements from local authorities, such as medical professionals, medical institutions and government officials, to help build trust and establish credibility in your community,” said Brick. “Develop a good relationship with your local media so you can get as much positive PR as possible. We all need to think about our marketing messages. What is the story we are going to tell? How can we control the narrative?”
Ultimately, controlling the narrative may come down to education surrounding how clubs actually operate, their goals and role in the health of each community.
“Continually educate the public on how professional, clean, sanitary and safe we all are,” advised Brick. “Use messaging to discuss how exercise helps build immunity, strength, energy, resilience, happiness and mental health. Use member testimonials from your raving fans. Partner with local hospitals, medical professionals and health departments to help endorse your reopening plan. This pandemic is a wake-up call that as an industry we need to work together to change the narrative that our clubs are safe and exercise is medicine.”
Of course, marketing, PR and communication strategies are just one way to achieve the industry’s goals to reclaim the narrative surrounding fitness businesses.
A second, and possibly more important strategy, includes operators getting involved at the local, state and national levels to ensure fitness businesses have a seat at the table throughout the pandemic and in future crises.
Conner explained as the pandemic unfolded in the U.S., it became clear policymakers lacked an understanding surrounding how clubs operate and how they could reopen successfully.
As a result, Conner joined forces with a number of Stone Creek’s competitors: Fred Klinge, the general manager of Pelican Athletic Club; Jamie Hamler, the general manager of Franco’s Health Club and Spa; and Nate Welch, the general manager of Cross Gates Family Fitness. Their goal? To submit standards to the local parish and state task forces that showcased the industry’s ability to be included in Phase 1 reopening plans.
“The four of us worked on it consistently,” recalled Conner. “I submitted it on behalf of the four of our clubs to the parish task force first while I was working on getting involved with the state. We were never on the group for the parish, but we submitted the information and had a focus group call with them, as well as other clubs from across the state, and they moved our suggestions on through. Then I was able to get on the state task force and am still serving on this group.”
Conner believes the group’s work was vital to allowing clubs to ultimately be included in Phase 1 of Louisiana’s reopening plans.
“There was a press conference on Monday before the Phase 1 reopening, and we were all watching on pins and needles,” said Conner. “They finally said clubs would open, including lap pools and locker rooms, and I was totally blown away. It made us feel really good, because all along, we felt powerless. I think finally they’re taking our industry seriously.”
In California, the pandemic has also sparked increased collaboration among fitness professionals statewide, showcased through the creation of the California Fitness Alliance (CFA).
According to Schuler, a founding partner of the CFA, the organization is inclusive, bringing together operators ranging from CrossFit boxes and boutiques to low-price and big-box clubs, in addition to industry suppliers and individuals like personal trainers. “The idea was everyone who cares about fitness should work together to have one voice and develop standards that are safe for everyone to bring fitness back in California,” she said.
As a result of the group’s efforts, Schuler was invited to participate in a fitness industry roundtable with California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and his leadership team, to discuss strategies for a successful reopening of gyms throughout the state.
“I think they’re appreciative of our efforts to provide a starting point for standards,” said Schuler. “There’s no question that the alliance, the fact it’s inclusive, the fact it’s trying to have one voice, and we’re very clear on what we want — which is the health and fitness of Californians — enabled us to have a really productive conversation with the governor. That’s been a big win.”
Similar fitness alliances are cropping up across the U.S, including in Maine. After receiving the all-clear for gyms to reopen in the state, and then having that decision walked back by policymakers, Gillespie realized the need for a fitness alliance and formed the Maine Fitness Club Coalition.
“I think an individual club owner can speak their mind, but to policymakers, that may appear self-serving,” explained Gillespie. “However, we have tens if not hundreds of thousands of members in any given state. For example, Maine has a population of a million people with an estimated 20% membership base. That means we have 200,000 people who are currently members of clubs and with a 25% turnover, we’re going to serve a quarter of a million people in a year. That is an incredible voter base.”
Through the coalition, Gillespie hopes to give clubs a fighting chance to overcome negative misconceptions surrounding the industry and ensure its successful future.
“I think we need to leverage members’ voices to policymakers to help tell a story that says, ‘We trust clubs. They’ve proven to us they’ve done all the things they need to do to keep us safe. We want to go back to stay healthy,’” said Gillespie. “Through the Maine Fitness Club Coalition, we are going to do just that. We’re going to create a story. We’re going to tell a tale. And we’re going to leverage our members’ power and voices to put pressure on the government to allow us to reopen, and allow members to get healthy, while we keep them safe.”
Fitness leaders across the industry are also calling for more involvement at the national level — in addition to local and state — such as through the support of IHRSA’s Industry Leadership Council (ILC).
“IHRSA works very hard to protect and promote our industry as the largest domestic and international trade association,” said McBride. “All for-profit organizations should be members of IHRSA and contribute to IHRSA’s ILC, which hires lobbyists on federal and state levels for all of our benefit. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of companies in our space contribute, which limits our ability to get more done with protection and public policy for the betterment of all of us.”
McBride believes it’s time for the fitness industry to make its voices heard at all levels of government throughout the U.S., and within local communities.
“I’d like to see our industry make our voices heard ongoing,” said McBride. “Share with your local, state and federal lawmakers the nuances and importance of our industry. We have a crisis right now, but we are always in need of our relatively small industry to have its voice heard. We are constantly threatened with unneeded legislation and taxation within our industry. Many states have sales taxes on health club dues — this is absurd based on the medical cost crisis, inactivity and obesity epidemic we have in our country.”
Lastly, many fitness leaders have stressed the importance of coming together as an industry, recognizing that although clubs may have competitors, everyone’s goals are ultimately the same.
“There are plenty of people who need access to fitness in the world and the U.S.,” said Schuler. “So let’s compete together to get more people healthy, rather than compete against each other. That’s been one of the spirits of the CFA that unfortunately took a pandemic to [realize], but it’s been really helpful to give us all a renewed sense of purpose — that the more we work together, the more people we’ll impact.”
BONUS: Joe Cirulli on Doing the Right Thing
If Joe Cirulli learned one thing from the pandemic, it was that doing the right thing all the time is essential to a club’s success in a crisis. “The biggest lesson you can learn is when you always do the right thing — you keep your clubs perfectly clean, you maintain a great relationship with your staff and your members, you do everything you say you’re going to do — and something like this happens, 99% of people will stick with you,” said Cirulli, the founder and CEO of Gainesville Health and Fitness in Gainesville, Florida. “If you do the right things during all the good times, when the bad times happen, you’ll find all the people who you always did right will be there to defend you and to protect you.”